Kurt Vonnegut is a unique voice in the American canon-a writer whose works are hard to categorize, often straddling the space between literature and science fiction, and filled with cutting satire and dark humor. Like Mark Twain before him, Vonnegut's reputation and impact on American writing and reading will continue to grow steadily and increase in relevance as new insights are made.
Vonnegut was born in 1922 in Indianapolis, and studied at the University of Chicago and the University of Tennessee. In the Second World War, he became a German prisoner of war and was present during the bombing of Dresden. This experience provided inspiration for his most successful and influential novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut-admired as much for his views and his "Vonnegutisms" as for his publications-wrote extensively in many forms, including novels, short stories, essays, plays, articles, speeches, and correspondence, some of which was published posthumously.
The editor of GALAXY magazine, Horace Gold, was obsessed with social trends and their extrapolation. The prototypical GALAXY story (often parodied in the magazine itself) would take a present-day, often overlooked trend, fad or demographic fact and posit a society in which they had become dominant. Thus Fred Pohl’s THE MIDAS PLAGUE in which obsessive consumerism and its unpleasant acquisitiveness had become negative social values. Thus Damon Knight’s BACKWARD TURN BACKWARD in which the lifespan reversed (from grave to cradle) becomes a mockery of 1950’s youth obsession. And thus THE BIG TRIP UP YONDER (January 1954) in which the increasing of the lifespan has led to a future America in which the old dominate simply because they will not die and yield their share of the diminishing stock of possessions...a circumstance which leads to the inevitable infantilism of the deprived younger generations. THE BIG TRIP UP YONDER is the second and last of the two stories which Kurt Vonnegut, a struggling mainstream writer and reluctant presence in science fiction, sold to GALAXY magazine. Characteristic of Vonnegut’s work, it is framed as comedy but is deathly serious and confronts the issue of overextended mortality with unbending grimness. Vonnegut spent no more time hanging around the genre science fiction markets; it was another 18 years before THE BIG SPACE F--- appeared in AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS and only did so because Vonnegut and that famous original anthology’s editor, Harlan Ellison, were old friends.
Rudy Waltz (aka "Deadeye Dick") is the lead in this latter day Vonnegut novel. Waltz, our protagonist, moves through the book trying to make sense of a life that is rife with disaster; there is a double murder, a fatal dose of radioactivity, a decapitation, the total annihilation of a city by nuclear holocaust and, believe it or not, more. Waltz, a diarist, becomes symbolic of a person living a fraught post-technological life in which frailty is as likely to be a person’s undoing as any bomb.
Waltz finally reaches the point of resignation; a realization and understanding that there are things that are just beyond our control and understanding that make all human motive, ambition, and circumstance absolutely irrelevant. Waltz’s search for meaning leads him ultimately to a kind of resignation which ought not be confused with understanding of any kind, for it is not. It is simple resignation.
It is this theme of Vonnegut’s--the impossibility of trying to live meaningfully in a meaningless world--that is ultimately central to this novel. Rudy Waltz (like some of Vonnegut’s other protagonists, Billy Pilgrim or Howard Campbell) is ultimately only a stand-in for Vonnegut himself who is really narrating for us as the lead witness and character here--the philosopher who is telling us why and what for.
Player Piano (1952), Vonnegut’s first novel, embeds and foreshadows themes which are to be parsed and dramatized by academians for centuries to come. His future society--a marginal extrapolation, Vonnegut wrote, of the situation he observed as an employee of General Electric in which machines were replacing people increasingly and without any regard for their fate--is mechanistic and cruel, indifferent to human consequence, almost in a state of merriment as human wreckage accumulates. Paul Proteus, the novel’s protagonist, is an engineer at Ilium Works and first observes with horror and then struggles to reverse the displacement of human labor by machines.
Ilium Works and Paul’s struggles are a deliberately cartoon version of labor’s historic and escalating struggle to give dignity and purpose to workers. The novel embodies all of Vonenegut’s concerns and what he takes to be the great dilemma of the technologically overpowered century: the spiritual needs of the population in no way serve the economies of technology and post-technology. Vonnegut overlies this grotesque comedy over tragedy, disguising his novel in the trappings of goofiness.
Not published--at Vonnegut’s insistence--as science fiction, the novel was nonetheless recognized and praised by the science fiction community which understood it far better than a more general readership, a dilemma which Vonnegut resentfully faced throughout his career. Bernard Wolfe’s dystopian Limbo and Player Pianowere published in the same year to roughly similar receptions; two "outsiders" had apotheosized technophobia as forcefully as any writer within the field. Throughout his career, Vonnegut was forced to struggle with his ambivalence about science fiction and his own equivocal relationship with its readers.
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